January 2004

Jack D. Crispin, Jr.


The Doctors' Plague by Sherwin B. Nuland

It is always hard for anyone to admit they are wrong. "Okay, so I was wrong about the Cubs winning the pennant." Not so hard to admit. But if the item is central to your profession, and admitting it not only questions your judgment but implicates you, although at the time unknowingly, in the many deaths your error has caused, that is a little harder to swallow. Obviously, many would, and did, deny the error rather than face the upset. And what about the messenger who discovered the error, admitted to his own involvement and did what he could to spread the alarm? How much disdain, anger, and illogical refutation could you stand if you were he?

It is the mid 1800's, and Ignac Semmelweis, a Hungarian-Austrian doctor is trying to convince his fellow physicians that they are spreading contagion from the corpses used for teaching and autopsies to their patients, particularly delivering mothers, causing disease and death. The healers are the plague.

This book chronicles the life of Ignac Semmelweis and explores the beginnings of the germ theory. Its acceptance, no matter how logically presented would be resisted, by fool and paragon alike, for many, many years. We are given an interesting picture and insight of the medical profession, its hierarchy, politics and practitioners of this period. We can understand, from the story, why the resistance remained, and at the same time are horrified by it, and the carnage it created. Why won't they listen to him?

At the end of the book, the author delves into the psyche of Semmelweis to offer an explanation of why he wasnt able to better spread the truth of his discovery. He takes to task several other authors who have offered other explanations in the past. It is obvious the author is quite dedicated to his own view, perhaps approaching obsession, but the reader can choose between the ideas presented.

Not only would this work appeal to the history buff in general and the medical historian in particular, but I would recommend it to anyone in the medical field, from nurse's aide to brain surgeon, for the look into the ways things were done in the past, how new ideas were developed from many sources along a fitful path, and how hard it was, and is, to accept change and responsibility.

The Doctors' Plague by Sherwin B. Nuland
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393052990
160 Pages